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Futile Labor

Media release

The John Curtin Gallery presents the world premiere of an exciting multi-sensory art installation that explores the growing phenomenon of the manipulation and engineering of life.

Futile Labor – work in progress, 2015, mice skeletal muscle cells (c2c12) PDMS, nutrient media.

Futile Labor is a collaborative artistic research project (funded by the Australian Research Council through their Discovery Early Career Award) by Dr Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts from SymbioticA – The Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts UWA and internationally-renowned multi-disciplinary artist Dr Chris Salter.

Futile Labour explores how muscle cells technically and conceptually become a technological apparatus and the increasingly challenging relations between life, engineering and labour.

This installation at the John Curtin Gallery will enable visitors to experience the growth and movement of a tissue engineered muscle that is housed and fed in a custom designed ‘living machine’. Through electrical stimulation, the muscle cells contract and their resulting movement is translated into humanly perceivable sensations: vibration, light and sound.

This performance and the resulting sensations are autonomously influenced and directed by the movement of the cells, all in real time in the gallery space.

Dr Salter said the installation was tactile and acoustic.

“The bio-reactor manipulates movement in living material which is naturally unstable and has a finite life span, so there will be a turnover of new cells throughout the exhibition period.

“As a result the scientific outcomes of this project are uncertain and visitors throughout the exhibition period may have different experiences as they move through the space.”

Referencing the fallacy of “seeing is believing,” Futile Labor challenges the idea that scientific truth is based on what is visible and instead plays upon what is physically felt in the bodies of the visitors. The artists utilize muscle cells called C2C12, which were transformed by scientists into “immortal cells” that can endlessly divide and multiply.

While lab mice life expectancy is 2-3 years, the collaborators attempt to stimulate cells derived from a mouse that died more than 35 years ago.

This transition “from the miraculous to the utilitarian”, the so-called mechanisation of movement that takes place in the installation, however, has a long historical arc. For example, Luigi Galvani’s experiments in the eighteenth century spectacularly demonstrated how a muscle can contract in an inert, dead body. These experiments led to an increasingly materialist and mechanistic understanding of life.

Today, we are witnessing a renewed interest in the engineering of new kinds of “bodies” and automated new forms of labour. This new “revolution” is where living materials/systems are seen as automata that can be engineered, mechanised, and standardised.

In Futile Labor, the tension between human and machinic bodies, the living, semi-living or non-living, is correlated with the very thresholds of human perception: the humble, almost invisible and barely perceptible random twitches of microscopic muscle cells in a dish over the efficient and apparent movement of a well-oiled machine. This human dream of engineering life may thus turn out to be, in the end, just a vapour in the
wind.

Futile Labor is part of Symbiotica’s HR initiative which includes a number of interrelated research-based exhibitions, forums and lectures throughout October 2015 that explore experimentation and excellence in art.